Tuesday, January 10, 2006


I am flying at 35,537 feet above Utah right now, heading for Boston. I always get a window seat so that I can press my face against the window and soak in the big, blue world from high altitude. I don't think I will ever get used to the idea that I am flinging my body at 600 miles per hour, able to see entire states at a glance outside my window. Having a giant, live map of the Earth moving directly beneath me astonishes me, and always will. The aisle seats might be more convenient for bathroom breaks, but give me the killer view that our ancestors could only dream of.

Recently, I downloaded Google Earth. I've known about it for a few months, but its description didn't excite me -- after all, I've long been using Google Maps in my browser. So Google Earth uses the same data as Google Maps -- ho-hum -- whatever. What's the big deal?

After prodding from friends, I relented and downloaded the application.

Ah. I recognize this thing. It's the view from my window seat! On steroids, with caffeine to boot.

My hometown contains a decommissioned Navy air base. On Google Earth I went to my hometown and noted that the jet runways were still intact. Since the application runs so smoothly, I could come onto the runways at the same angle and speed as a jet pilot. It's amazing -- I could see the runway markings, and the bushes on the edges. I probably made a virtual landing onto the Navy base about ten times, from different angles, onto different runways.

This morning, on a real jet plane, we took off for Boston and I immediately spotted outside my window the runway in my hometown, which we were flying over. I recognized the runway numbers, the color of the stripes -- even the bushes.

In short, I've been floored by Google Earth. I am pretty numb to new software. I'm not easily impressed, since most applications seem only to rearrange or streamline what already has existed for years now. And since I am middle aged, everytime an upgrade comes out for an application that I use a lot, I take it on like a load of logs on my back. "One more thing I have to learn about and adjust to," I lament. When I was younger, upgrades were happy things -- there was coolness in an upgrade, with enhanced features and new amazing tools. Now, I just want to use what I know. My reflex to new software is to push it back, like coming home to 30 new voicemail messages. Eventually, I relent and do the right thing. And in the end, it's good that I do.

So Google Earth really floored me because I don't think I have uttered the word 'cool' so much in five minutes since I saw the first Star Wars movie in '77.

Google Earth provides a new, networked platform for looking at our planet. It's basically a 3D model of a big ball, onto which is mapped all sorts of data. Naturally, the first layer of data is the Earth itself -- satellite images of the surface. The images vary in resolution, mainly dependent on available data. An additional component is actual topographical data, so that hills and mountains are actually three dimensional. Changing your incline on a landscape reveals the topgraphical scale of things. I flew through the Grand Canyon, and found Mt. Everest by scanning Nepal's skyline. Amazing.

In selected urban downtowns, Google has provided a layer comprised of primitive three-dimensional buildings. They're gray and not highly detailed.You can change your angle and fly through buildings, down the canyons of buildings. I'm not entirely sure what the utility of three-dimensional buildings is, but it is cool nonetheless.

See? I said 'cool' again.

The most powerful aspect of Google Earth is the millions of possible layers that can overlay the planet, showing nodes of relevant data, such as 'Lodgings' or 'Restaurants'. There's some default layers like those, but clearly the future will include more and more layers from a variety of sources. Perhaps things like a Crimes Report layer, a weather satellite layer, local headline news layer, GPS tracking layers, and a myriad of personal layers compiled by people. I downloaded one such personal layer (.KMZ file) created and posted by a guy with a rich, detailed knowledge of sites in North Korea. When I activate his North Korea layer, up come about a hundred markers showing different points of interest, including gulags, nuke plants, communist slogans on the sides of hills, etc.

I always thought that flying really made the world small. Google Earth makes the world absolutely tiny. You can zoom way out and there's Jim Lovell's view of the entire planet from Apollo 8 -- a dot in a sea of blackness, easily obscured by his thumb. Everything, boiled down to a blue marble.

Coolness aside, all this has me concerned about Google. I know I'm not alone in wondering if Google might become too powerful. It's an opaque company, with no exact parallel to be found in corporate history. When I see Jim Lovell's view of Tiny Earth, I wonder if this opening screen is also Google's corporate view of our world: Making us small, and absolute. Looked that way, Google's clever rendering of our planet -- diminutive, contained, made knowable by Google -- feels ominous.

I suppose that 'coolness' was a dominating factor leading to much folly throughout human history. We appear to be in an era of simultaneous expansion and contraction. More and more data floods our lives, expanding into torrents; and companies like Google are refining and contracting those torrents of information into becoming managable and useful.

Sure, that's cool. It's even necessary. But in the process we're leaving behind a big part of life, as we've known it. Our children will grow up with less of a sense of mystery out of all this tracking. Everything, all the time, everywhere will not be amazing to them; it will be assumed. It might be seen as a liability, not an asset. And we'll be made absolutely accountable to every micro-law that governs modern life, right down to the last legal crossed t and dotted i. I suspect that that refining the granularity of accountability will have little to do with freedom, in the end.

Google does an amazing job of combining Apple's hipness with Microsoft's global dominance. I think we have all been caught off-guard by this new company. Google seems to record everything they can, having become the world's ultimate high-res scanner. IP delivery based on geolocation is a double-edged sword; for all the data they collect, there's no established limit to what degree they retain data about you and I. Data mining and retention is serious business, once the purview of autocratic governments, spies and investigators. Now it's the oil that lubricates what might be the world's largest, most omnipotent tracking corporation.

It might be true that a networked world needs a Google in one form or another. So while I consider myself an optimist about my country's spreading democracies to the dark corners of the Earth, I am chastened by the corporate juggernauts my culture produces, that appear to be accountable to nobody.

How cool is that?